In my more childish moments I used to envy George M. Cohan. I still do, which proves, I suppose, that innocent fancies survive even after hard realities should have expunged them.

Not only did Cohan know exactly who he was, he gloried in the knowledge. What's more, he made a great career of it. He was the original Yankee Doodle Dandy, the All-American Boy, versatile, expert, it seemed, at everything. In the world of the theater, my first love, he could sing and dance and write and act and produce better than anyone else. As they said at the time, he was the man who owned Broadway. His words and music live on long after him.

Cohan had something else going for him that I admired.

To a boy like myself who grew up surrounded by momentos of past American glories -- a great-grandfather's cavalry sword, carried nobly. I'm sure, during the Civil War, a great-great-grandfather's narrative tales of the American Revolution, bound in leather and depicting daring acts of ancestors ("Could you wallow in Tom Johnson's blood now?" a relative asked a cowering Tory who had boasted of such brutality before hanging Brave Tom after he was captured by British troops while leading a scouting expedition to Cornwallis' headquarters) -- Cohan's patriotic hymns of heroism rang exactly true

Yes, I know, they are filled with jingoism, strident notes and a celebration of combat, all traits we are trying to put behind us, but that's not how I viewed them then.

To my childish mind, Cohan was even more fortunate. He had the great luck to be born on the Fourth of July; his entire life became a celebration of self and country. How wonderful, I thought, to participate each year in the biggest, loudest, gaudiest national party of all, and all on your own birthday.

I was, as I admit, naive.

Not that birthdays ever have been that important.

In my own mind I was always younger than anyone else -- younger in grammar school, high school, college and the other many steps along the way. Others groaned and grumbled at reaching commemorative milestones -- their 20th, 30th, 40th birthdays -- but I, stout fellow, paid them no heed. After all, age was only a relative thing, and what was all the fuss about? Now, at last, I know.

A friend warned me it would be like this. First, there would be that TV commercial, the one I'd seen for years but never noticed. This time, she said knowingly, the message would be arresting.

And there, the other morning, it was.

A pleasant, rather plump, grandfatherly type was speaking directly at me out of the screen while I, bleary-eyed, stumbled out of bed. He was vaguely familiar. I realized I'd been watching him on early morning wakeup shows for years without really listening to what he said.

"If you are between the ages of 50 and 80," he was saying, in warm, reassuring tones, "you cannot be turned down for life insurance."

Superimposed over the screen were the words Between 50 and 80. Suddenly, I knew. Just a few days after Georgie M's and the U.S. of A's respective birthdays, I would be entering that special cleft in time called, for no good reason, and many bad ones, my "golden age."

Such an anniversary can't be ignored, but surely neither can it be all bad. After all, I'll now qualify for that special life insurance deal for my new age category --and they can't turn me down if I act fast. Ahead lie the pleasures of the pension, the retirement benefits built up through the financial rock, Social Security, the golden watch for service faithfully rendered, the enhanced status of becoming a senior citizen, the license enjoyed by all since Napoleon's (and Caesar's) sergeant of telling shameful, tiresome lies about the great days of the past, which, of course, always were grander than those of the present.

So, faithful reader, while I was able to ignore those earlier anniversaries, I cannot feign indifference now. As Arthur Miller reminds us, attention must be paid to this one.

There are two ways of looking at that 50-year span that I find myself forced to contemplate.

You can take the grim side and be properly depressed by how terrible it was: the Great Depression that greeted by birth was followed by the greatest war, the Cold War and two hot ones -- my war, the forgotten one in Korea, and then Vietnam -- and more than enough public scandals and deaths of leaders and national crises to fill scores of gloomy histories.

Or you can take the positive side and be impressed with how much progress has been made: with the improvement in the quality of life all around us, with our extraordinary advances in science, medicine, technology and art, with our resilience as a society in times of severe stress, with our basic maturity and collective common sense and good humor.

As my friends will tell you, I usually come down on the sunny side. While not a hopeless one, I am nonetheless an optimist by nature. So, on this occasion, I remain.

I also feel remarkably lucky -- fortunate in my family, my friends, my work. It still strikes me as incredible good fortune that I have been able to do exactly what I like best -- and be well paid for it in the process. I can exactly echo the thoughts of Henry Adams:

"Considering that stock complaints against the world, he could not understand why he had nothing to complain of."

I admire Mr. Adams, who was a romantic at heart despite his dour manner. When he says, "He had enjoyed his life amazingly and would not have exchanged it for any other that came his way," I nod approvingly. But I differ with him in one important respect.

When he was examining the quality of his life from a similar vantage point in time, the graceful old gentleman confessed to a familiar complaint: "He was tired; his nervous energy ran low; and, like a horse that wears out, he quitted the race-course, left the stable, and sought pastures as far as possible from the old." He had just come from the South Seas when he wrote that and yearned to return, as he put it, "if it were only to sleep forever in the trade-winds under the southern stars, wandering over the dark purple ocean, with its purple sense of solitude and void."

Not yet, Mr. Adams. Someday, perhaps, the South Seas will be my escape, but I fure I've got a few more laps around the track left, and maybe even a fast finiah or two before those green pastures beckon.

After all, as the example of our latest leader keeps reminding us, for Americans these days life begins at 70.

I'll confess I never thought of you as a role model before, Ronnie, but right now here's one whippersnapper who salutes you. You probably admired old George M. yourself.